WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA) joined Representative Garret Graves (R-LA-06) and nearly 40 Members of Congress to urge U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) Secretary Gina Raimondo to direct the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to allow better science and improved access to red snapper fishing opportunities.
“Management of the red snapper recreational fishery was built off legislation Congressman Graves and I introduced,” said Dr. Cassidy. “Once it became clear the Gulf Council couldn’t adequately manage this program, we stepped in to help. Successful state management will keep the fishery healthy and let families enjoy a day on the water.”
“Red snapper is one of the most popular catches for Gulf anglers. The states have done a great job sustainably managing this important resource. States have the best available science and can make the best decisions for the species right off our coast – not someone in Washington, D.C. And, those pesky federal laws actually require the use of the best science. If NMFS’s deckhands would leave their cubicles and see the repercussions of their decisions, we wouldn’t need to keep having this discussion. Instead of providing common-sense proposals, they keep tying State and Federal management in a regulatory knot tighter than a Boy Scout could,” said Rep. Graves.
Throughout the season, each Gulf Coast state estimates how many red snapper their anglers are catching. Previously, the states’ annual fishing limit was set just below the total overfishing limit to ensure a sustainable fishery. While the federal overfishing limit was increased based on the Great Red Snapper Count (a robust, independent study Congress required to provide higher-quality fisheries data) NMFS has decreased the percentage of fish that anglers can catch compared to the sustainable limit.
Bureaucrats are taking the state data and watering it down through flawed methods – an inferior system called the Marine Recreational Information Program. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act requires that the best available data be used for decision-making and the Modern Fish Act requires NMFS to coordinate with states to get the best available data. It’s clear that these new efforts by NMFS do not rely on the high-quality data we know that our states are providing.
To see the proposed rule, click here.
Read the full letter here or below.
Dear Secretary Raimondo:
As many of us wrote to you over a year ago, we are at a critical juncture in recreational fisheries management in the Gulf of Mexico—and across our nation. At that time, we urged you to exercise the flexibility afforded in the Magnuson-Stevens Act by embracing status quo management of Red Snapper in the Gulf of Mexico until the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) could fully integrate the best available science into management decisions. NMFS’s recent proposed rule indicates that they would rather rely on outdated and fundamentally flawed data than embrace the best available science, as is required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
We recognize the complexity of this management structure and the committed work that NMFS has done to try to implement it. However, much like a city that built one-off roads simply to connect to new attractions, the overall structure has become unnecessarily convoluted. We urge you to rethink this proposed rule and work with us and our state managers to implement common sense solutions that will untangle this regulatory knot while setting a strong precedent for how state and federal management can work together to more effectively and sustainably manage recreational fisheries.
This regulatory knot is exemplified by the proposed rule moving forward with calibration. It is no secret that NMFS’s Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) is an inaccurate and poor data set. National Standard 2 of the Magnuson-Stevens Act requires conservation and management measures to be “based on the best scientific information available.” As our letter pointed out a year ago, multiple studies, including by the National Academies of Science (NAS), deemed MRIP to have “fundamental” flaws. Even after improvements in 2017, NAS still has questions regarding MRIP’s ability to meet the needs of inseason management. Furthermore, NMFS’s own representatives admit that MRIP is not designed for the short term catch monitoring that is needed for in-season management and that the State programs—which NMFS helped design and certified—are.
This proposed rule ignores the Council and Congress’s intent. When the Gulf Fishery Management Council adopted the calibrations in 2021, it intentionally delayed calibration so NMFS could propose more accurate ways to incorporate the States’ data. To further that work, Congress appropriated $2 million for NMFS to research an effective calibration solution. By requiring the States to calibrate their more accurate—and NMFS certified—catch data to an outdated and fundamentally flawed MRIP, NMFS has failed to find an effective solution and is not making decisions based on the best available science while refusing to appropriately integrate the new data.
As a result, states like Mississippi and Alabama—whose programs are NMFS certified— are proposed to have their annual catch limits (ACLs) cut more than fifty or sixty percent because NMFS calibration method indicates they are underestimating catch. However, from the opposite perspective, Mississippi and Alabama’s catch programs suggest the rest of the Gulf States are actually overestimating catch. Thus, the rest of the Gulf States could sustainably be catching more Red Snapper each year and contributing to the Gulf’s economy and conservation efforts. Meanwhile, the largely ignored, but scientifically groundbreaking $10 million Great Red Snapper Count indicates that those fish are, in fact, there to be caught.
Even disregarding calibration, NMFS’s proposed rule still chooses to ignore the directives of the Magnuson-Stevens Act with its ACL decisions. In addition to requiring use of the best available science, the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s first National Standard requires NMFS to allow for the optimum, or maximum sustainable, yield from a fishery. Put simply, this means to allow for as much fishing as is sustainable for the population—a directive that NMFS intended to follow when they thought there were only one-third of the Red Snapper we now know are in the Gulf.
Before the Great Red Snapper Count, the annual catch limits allowed fishing to 97% of the sustainable limit, a number that arguably would represent maximum sustainable yield. Now that NMFS knows there are three times more fish than previously thought, the proposed ACL would only allow fishing to 60% of what would be sustainable. This decision relies heavily on non-targeted bottom long-line sampling—instead of the superior Great Red Snapper Count that proves there are nearly three times as many fish as NMFS previously thought. Yet again, this proposed rule is not based on accurate science and ignores the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s explicit instruction to fish to the optimum yield.
This is about more than getting to catch an extra fish; NMFS’s decision ignores the importance of balancing predator-prey relationships. Red Snapper are predatory fish by nature, and leaving them unchecked upsets the delicate balance of our managed fisheries. By not harvesting Red Snapper at appropriate levels, the species is allowed to flourish and decimate populations of other species lower on the food chain. This is why it is vital that the best available science is used in decisionmaking.
The Red Snapper fishery is important to our culture and is a major economic driver in the Gulf. Our anglers are our best stewards, and no one wants to preserve the stock more than they do. As stated in our previous letter, NMFS data states that anglers spent over $13.5 billion in the Gulf in 2017. Taxes on boat fuel and fishing equipment pay into the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund which in turn pays for critical conservation and infrastructure programs and projects in all fifty states. When we lose fishing time, we lose conservation dollars, and NMFS’s proposed rule puts Gulf anglers in an unjustified time out.
We all want this state management initiative to be successful, and the Gulf States are working hard to see that it is. However, we must express our frustration when we see NMFS, not only failing to do their part, but preventing us in the Gulf from doing ours. We stand ready to assist NMFS however we can to make this initiative work and to set an effective example for other fisheries—especially as we watch our neighbors on the Atlantic coast try their hand at untangling a similar regulatory knot.